By Sabrina Ford
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Actress Kerry Washington, star of the new ABC drama "Scandal", calls herself the "the luckiest broad in showbiz".
Washington's lead role as a crisis management expert has not only won the actress over to television, but it's also the first drama series on a major broadcast TV network in recent memory to star a black actress in the lead role.
"I wasn't looking for it," Washington, 35, told Reuters of her move to TV after years of movie and stage work. "But I did think, 'some of the best writing is in TV right now, and some of the best opportunities for women are on TV right now.'"
"Scandal", the latest project from "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" creator Shonda Rhimes, stars Washington as Olivia Pope, Washington D.C. public relations genius and head of Pope & Associates crisis management firm.
Washington is best known for her work in films like "Ray," where she played singer Ray Charles' wife, and will costar in "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's upcoming western set in slavery-era United States. She made her Broadway debut in 2010 in David Mamet's "Race".
Washington said she had been looking for a cable TV project, mainly because the shorter seasons would make it easier to juggle her thriving film and stage careers. She wasn't keen on doing a broadcast network show until, being a fan of Rhimes's work, she read the script for "Scandal".
Now, said Washington, "I'm totally hooked ... I will continue to do movies, but I have fallen in love with television."
FEW LEAD TV ROLES FOR BLACK WOMEN
"Scandal", which had its premiere on ABC last Thursday, isn't just a significant change for Washington. The series is the first network drama in recent memory with a black actress in the lead role.
"It's sad that it's such a big topic of conversation and that we just don't see it more often," said Washington. "A network has not stood behind this kind of show."
A diverse group of actors including Guillermo Diaz, Henry Ian Cusick and Columbus Short portray Olivia Pope's talented, and often cunning staff.
Judy Smith, a leading crisis management consultant whose clients include NFL player Michael Vick and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, was the inspiration for the series and serves as producer.
"She's helped us all understand the high stakes of this world," said Washington of Smith's involvement. "Somebody walks into your office on what will probably be the worst day of their entire life and they say, 'fix it.'"
Pope's tough, no-nonsense personality may make some fans quiver - even Washington's mom called Pope "mean" after seeing the first episode, the actress said. But Washington sees noble intentions at the core of what her character does.
"She's somebody who really cares about her fellow human beings, and she believes that people deserve a second chance, that if they're willing to take responsibility for their wrongs they deserve another shot at life."
Each episode introduces a new client and case - a closeted gay war hero suspected of murder, a madam with high-profile clients. But in Thursday's premiere, it was clear that Pope is involved in a scandal of her own when she and the U.S. President, played by Tony Goldwyn, passionately kissed in the Oval Office.
"People are really getting caught up and invested in that storyline," said Washington. She cites the crew's response to upcoming episodes as evidence of the show's engaging quality.
"There were huge arguments on set," Washington said, laughing. "One day there were brushes flying in the makeup trailer because one of the stylists was so upset (about a scene)."
Among topics for debate has been whether the strong and sophisticated Pope would succumb to the Commander-in-Chief's charm.
"Don't we all have girlfriends we think that about - 'Isn't she smarter than that?'" asked Washington. "We all know women who've been in that place, and that guy probably wasn't the President of the United States!"
(Reporting By Sabrina Ford; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte)